Growing up, I was so envious of other people’s mothers.
Paul Henshall’s mother used to bake him fresh chocolate chip cookies on Mondays and brownies on Thursdays. Walter Szymakowski’s glamorous mink-coated Polish mother would show up each afternoon in her BMW to collect him. And when David Cunningham got caught for shoplifting (a bar of chewing gum from our local newsagent), his mother sat him down and had a long heart to heart conversation with him.
It seemed to me that everywhere I turned, I encountered mothers who seemed so cool and understanding.
My mother, on the other hand, was a benign tyrant who saw nothing wrong with cracking the cane, all without pausing a moment in her daily mahjong session. And as my sister Michelle said when David Cunningham got nicked, if that had happened to one of us, Mother would have thrashed us to within an inch of our lives. And then Father would have taken over.
Once, when my brother Jack was getting a beating for failing his mid-term Maths exam, Mother said, over his bleating yelps, that the beating was hurting her more than it was him. “We only want the best for you, and the best will not happen if you fail exams!” she said. Michelle later said she could have sworn that while Mother was administering the beating, she was admiring her new 10-carat diamond ring that was our father’s 15th wedding anniversary present to her.
Years later, she would say it was an absolute miracle that the three of us grew up to be as normal and well-adjusted as we had. “Why, we could so easily have turned out to be homicidal maniacs! You read about this kind of thing all the time in the newspapers!”
There’s a new book out by Amy Chua, an American Yale law professor, called ‘Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother’. To save you from buying and reading the book, its basic message is that Asian kids do so much better in school and in life because of tough love, Chinese parent-style. No molly-coddling and excuses. Failure is met by punishment. “An A-minus is not a good grade!” she trumpets.
By various means of discipline and military supervision, Chua forced all her children to become top of their class in every subject, but relaxed her rules when it came to drama and gym. For instance, she once made her daughter practice a difficult piano piece for 10 hours without a bathroom break. Apparently, the kid ended up winning the piano competition and was forever grateful to her mother.
But then the kid would say that, wouldn’t she? I mean, if she had said what she was really thinking, which was probably: “Because my psycho Chinese mother forced me to learn how to play that bloody Bach sonata, I now have a life-threatening urinary tract infection”, can you imagine the domestic consequences?
Meanwhile, Western parents are apparently appalled by Professor Chua’s book. Some actually think it’s a literary prank. But here’s the thing, when I heard about the book, I thought, “What’s the big deal? That’s how my mother forced me to learn my multiplication tables”: Through a combination of abject terror (the cane), self-preservation (“You are not having dinner if you can’t recite the eight times table!”) and sheer repetitive boredom (seriously, after you said “eight times eight is sixty-four” for the fiftieth time, it’s not likely you’re ever going to forget it again in a real hurry).
This might also explain why I was able to carve out a reasonably successful career as a lawyer. Remembering the details of those numerous torturous law cases was never much of a problem for me.
As for Jack, he ended up being the youngest vice-president in the history of his bank. Turns out he actually likes numbers.
Meanwhile, Michelle, forced by Mother to learn French in school (“It’s the most stupid language!” she once screamed at Mother just before her exam on subjunctive tenses), has, to the envy of all her friends, only ever dated sexy gorgeous French men and she gets the best service every time she walks into Louis Vuitton in Paris.
Just the other day, I caught up with an old school friend on Facebook and, of course, I asked him whatever happened to our pals. “Well,” he wrote back, “Walter Szymakowski is a second rate drag queen in Sydney, David Cunningham is in gaol for embezzeling and Paul Henshall just had a stomach bypass after he got so fat he literally couldn’t fit through his front door! I don’t know what the hell happened to those guys!”
I do. They didn’t have a tyrannical Chinese mother like Amy Chua. We did.